Down At The Races Exhibition Opens In Downpatrick

An exciting exhibition of memorabilia from days gone by of horse racing in County Down has opened at the Down County Museum.

The story of local horse racing unfolds with a tremendous array of exhibits all part of the wider Down Time festival. The exhibition includes displays, of unique objects associated with Downpatrick and Down Royal racecourses, and with the jockeys, horses and trainers who raced at these two courses.

Frankie Fitzsimmons whose family were much involved in riding and training horses in Downpatrick, looks over an ariel view of the Downpatrick racecourse taken around 1945.

Speaking at the launch, Chairperson of Newry Mourne and Down, Cllr Mark Murnin, said: This exhibition provides a fascinating insight into the story of horse racing in the area and the unique contribution that horse racing has made to the history if sport in County Down as well as providing visitors with an immensely interesting and entertaining exhibition which is a key component of the Down Time Festival.

Horse racing has a long history in County Down. In 1685, the Down Royal Corporation of Horse Breeders were granted a royal charter by King James II giving them the right to hold horse races.

Racing began soon after in Downpatrick and in 1660 William III granted £100 for a King’s Plate to be run annually. The spectacle and excitement of horse racing continue to be integral to sporting and social life in the area and ‘going to the races’ still figures largely in the cultural life of the community.

At the launch of Down at the Races were, from left, Richard Lyttle, Downpatrick Racecourse manager; Cllr Mark Murnin, Chair of Newry Mourne and Down District Council; Arlene Matthews, Down County Museum Keeper of Collections; Frankie Fitzsimmons, racing enthusiast; Mike King, Curator at Down County Museum; and Marian Cave, whose father trained Cahoo, a Grand National winner.

The exhibition looks at the changes the sport has witnessed over the past centuries and displays objects such as trophies, race cards, badges, programmes and photographs. In addition, the exhibition features racing sadles, bridles saddle cloths and colours from a number of owners and trainers which demonstrate how the sport has evolved.

A key object on display is the old weighing scales from Downpatrick. The scales are over 100 years old and include a pulley and weights system and a recently conserved chair where the jockeys sat to be weighed.

Other fascinating artefacts include the framed colours of Cahoo, who raced in Downpatrick and won the Ulster National in 1945 and 1946 before winning the Grand National in 1947. The colours are complete with the mud from Aintree, and  there are breeches signed by AP McCloy, racing silks in the colours of the Earl of Kilmorey and a number of beautiful ‘Ladies Days’ outfits.

The exhibition panels include information on the history of the courses, the famous victories of horses with plenty of stories of the many colourful characters associated with the ‘sport of kings’.

Robert Whan, Down County Museum; Frankie Fitzsimmons, Arlene Matthews, Keeper of Collections; Jennifer and Jeremy Maxwell, trainer.